On the far side of the Sinai Peninsula, about a six-hour drive from Cairo through a largely empty Egyptian desert, the Rafah crossing is a dun-colored expanse of sand, concrete and not much else. Isolated from the rest of the Egypt by not only distance but also heavy military restriction, Rafah can feel as distant from world events as any place on the planet.
Yet over the last three weeks of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza, Rafah has become the focus of heated negotiations, a place where many people, both powerful and powerless, have pinned their waning hopes. With Israel imposing a suffocating siege on the densely populated enclave, Rafah has become the only entry into the strip for aid to get to its population of 2.3 million people. So far, nothing and no one has been able to come out of Gaza.
But that may soon change: Egypt told the Gazan authorities that it would take in 81 seriously wounded people from Gaza and treat them in Egyptian hospitals on Wednesday, according to a statement from Gaza’s General Authority for Crossings and Borders.
Egypt’s control of the Rafah crossing has given it prominent status as one of Gaza’s main benefactors and an important player in the conflict, a position that analysts say could help it unlock more international financial support amid a crushing economic crisis in the North African nation. Egypt highlighted that role on Tuesday, when the government took reporters on a tightly controlled trip to Rafah.
Aid trucks and army tanks lined the dusty road leading to the crossing. Dozens of volunteers from government-sponsored aid groups and the Egyptian Red Crescent milled about. Several ambulances sat just inside the huge archway framing the crossing.
“From the very first minute, we’ve been sending convoys of assistance from our organizations, and volunteers have been staying here around the clock for days,” Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said in a short news conference, as crowds of volunteers carrying Egyptian flags and pro-Palestinian signs gathered to listen. “Egypt has shouldered the burden of the Palestinian issue for years.”
Yet, partly because of factors beyond Egypt’s control, Rafah can meet only a fraction of Gaza’s needs. Just 241 trucks of aid have reached Gaza since its gates opened two weeks ago after negotiations between the United States, Israel, Egypt and the U.N., a paltry number given the scale of the humanitarian need, aid officials say.
Israel, which is carrying out stringent inspections of aid trucks, had been the main player slowing the process, according to the U.N., the European Union, and Egyptian and U.S. officials. But Israel has now agreed to allow in about 80 trucks per day, according to two Western diplomats briefed on the negotiations, still short of the 100 per day the U.N. says are needed.
On Tuesday, 83 trucks arrived in Gaza, said Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing.
David M. Satterfield, the U.S. special envoy assigned to shepherd humanitarian issues in the conflict, said in Cairo on Sunday that aid needed to flow far more quickly in order to show increasingly distressed Gazans that they did not need to resort to looting U.N. warehouses for sustenance, as happened several days ago.
“This is a society on edge and desperate,” he said, adding that agencies distributing assistance “must be able to demonstrate that aid is not episodic.”
Negotiators have also been pressing to evacuate people in Gaza who hold foreign passports and their families, along with staff of foreign embassies and international organizations. Over the past three weeks, people have rushed to the Gaza side of the gate multiple times after being told they could cross, only to find it shut. The United States has publicly blamed Hamas, the political and military organization that controls the enclave, while Egypt has publicly blamed Israel, saying it has made the crossing unsafe by repeatedly bombing the Gaza side.
But nobody is publicly blaming Egypt, though Western diplomats involved in the evacuation effort say that Egypt’s fears — including that a throng of desperate people could try to break through to Egypt as soon as the gate opens — are also playing a role in foreign nationals’ continued inability to evacuate.
There is still a chance that an agreement could come together for people with foreign passports to leave. But Egypt has made clear that it would not accept large numbers of Palestinian refugees on its soil, a proposal that some in the international community, including Israel, have reportedly floated. Mr. Madbouly categorically rejected such an idea, as did volunteers at the gate.
“No, no, no, it’s not a solution, and I refuse this solution,” said Mustafa Mouftah, 30, a university lecturer from the nearby Egyptian city of El Arish who started volunteering as a translator at Rafah a week ago. “This is our land, and we love this land.”
Mr. Satterfield said on Sunday that the United States also did not consider it to be an option, saying that the Biden administration respected Egypt’s sovereignty and that it believed that “the future of the Palestinian people of Gaza is in Gaza.”
Hiba Yazbek and Iyad Abuheweila contributed reporting.